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Can I receive Workers’ Compensation if I contract the Coronavirus (COVID-19) at work?

As of the writing of this article, COVID-19 is spreading in Massachusetts.  It is important to prepare for how COVID-19 may affect your health and family, but it is also just as important to know how this disease could affect your ability to earn an income.

The more inherent the risk of contracting the disease is to your work, the more likely you are to be able to receive workers’ compensation benefits.

Our workers’ compensation attorneys can’t answer specific questions or provide advice unless we speak to you directly.  But for background purposes, here’s how the courts in Massachusetts have historically addressed the intersection of workers’ compensation and infectious disease.

In Massachusetts, workers’ compensation benefits are available to employees who suffer a personal injury arising out of and in the course of his or her employment.  M.G.L. c. 152, §26.  In its most basic terms, personal injury means a typical physical injury at work, such as a slip and fall or an industrial accident.  However, infectious diseases might qualify as personal injuries if the nature of the employment is such that the hazard of contracting the disease is inherent in the employment.

No courts have yet had to deal with whether a person can receive workers’ compensation benefits if they contract the Coronavirus at work.  But looking at prior cases involving infectious diseases provides useful information.  In Perron’s Case, 354 Mass. 594 (1949), a nurse qualified for workers’ compensation benefits after she contracted tuberculosis while working in a tuberculosis hospital.  Ultimately, the Court held that when, “because of the nature of employment, a possibility exists that an employee may contract an infectious or contagious disease, it becomes a question of fact wither the likelihood of infection or contagion is so essentially characteristic of the employment as to warrant a finding that the danger is inherent therein.”

In a different case where the employee contracted tuberculosis simply from being in close proximity to a co-worker with the disease, however, the employee did not qualify because the Board found that the risk was not inherent in the employee’s job.  Lussier v. Sadler Brothers, Inc.  Similarly, the Board held that a short-haul truck driver’s contraction of bacterial meningitis at work was not covered under the workers’ compensation statute.  Langevin v. Air Liquide America.  The Board focused on the fact that the employee could not prove that the risk of contracting the disease was inherent in his type of work and employment.  Rather, they found that there was no evidence of a connection (or nexus) between the risk of contamination and the specific functions of the employee’s job.

The courts also look at how common the risk of contraction is to a great many occupations.  In 1991, the Department of Industrial Accidents Reviewing Board found that an employee’s exposure to and contraction of pneumonia at work did not qualify for workers’ compensation benefits where the hazard of contracting pneumonia in New England was too common to a great many occupations.  Raimo v. DeIulis Brothers Construction Company.

What this all means is that if the Court looks at the facts of your case and finds that your employment carried an inherent risk of contracting COVID-19, you might qualify for workers’ compensation benefits.  Obviously, medical professionals and nursing home providers are at greater risk of contracting COVID-19 at work than someone working an office job.  But because the Court’s analysis will be fact-dependent, you should speak with a workers’ compensation attorney to determine the likelihood that your particular job would be covered.

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